Flash Fiction by David Galef
Interlude with You
I read good books. I’m right an alarmingly high percentage of the time. But I feel unappreciated, growing more so by the minute. My husband and son have left me. At least for an hour. During that time, I’m holding a conversation with you, my imaginary lover.
You’re the one who responded to my ad, “Looking for Helpful Man.” Does such a man exist? I’m not really a hopeless romantic, more a hopeful one.
Really? You didn’t have to say that, but thank you.
What are you doing right now? Do something else. Delight me. Sing to me, dance for me, lay everything you have at my feet, and I promise I won’t trample on it.
Now make me laugh. Do that thing with your mouth that sounds like a banjo. That’s not what I meant. Take your fingers out of your mouth. Surely you have other talents.
I see that you do.
I hear my family returning. Sin at leisure, repent in haste. Leave the door ever so slightly ajar. I want to dream about you, so you can visit more often. Or maybe, just maybe, all I need is for you to become a haunting memory.
Pedro and I were trying to accomplish love by other means. Whatever that means. We were in bed but not touching. Not meaningfully. Both of us were half-nude, Pedro showing off his hairless chest, me with my boxers hung on the lampshade . Pedro’s right leg was arched casually over my left thigh. My left arm was not quite encircling his waist. We were a little unsure about what to do next.
“Want a cigarette, Paul?”
“That comes later.”
“Only if we do it. And we said we wouldn’t.”
We had a history. Pedro and I had been a number since August—several numbers, in fact. We met in the Lava Lounge and didn’t have a word to say to each other. Because we didn’t need to. The air between us was charged with something beyond electricity. Half an hour later, we glided off to his apartment.
It’s hard to say just what the attraction was, except everything. When I smiled my invitation, he scowled irresistibly. When he reached out, I came forward. Our bodies merged so tightly, they were inextricable. We steamed up the windows so fast, you’d need to air out the bedroom to see straight. Some days we didn’t get out at all. When we did, and promenaded around town, the heat of our passion made sheet metal smolder. Then back to bed.
Before the act, the anticipation made for an intense tingling. The afterglow was radioactive. Some afternoons, we vibrated so intensely, the bed started dancing.
One morning in September, our lovemaking grew so fiery that it almost burned down the apartment. No one was injured, but we vowed not to repeat such an act. We did, one week later—and this time, a collateral injury occurred: an old man next door, swept up and dumped as if in a hurricane. He broke his arm in the fall.
Who knew that such love could be so dangerous? Everyone but us, apparently. Call us naive. Call us young. Call us whatever you like.
What to do? We couldn’t give each other up. We tried a platonic relationship: sitting at a café, going to the cinema, and reading to each other. All it did was leave us remembering and wanting. Like something that’s fizzled out or a spark that hasn’t jumped the coil. We retreated to phone calls and texting: just as bad in another direction.
Now here we are, back in bed but not on fire. Deliberately keeping away from matches. For as long as we can. My all; his willpower. His everything; my determination. I take a deep breath. He matches it with one of his own. We stare at each other, questioning.
I reach out my hand and stop, halfway there.
Since it would have been churlish to complain, Clem complained.
—Lives of the Curmudgeons
childhood and adolescence
“Dad’s at the automat,” Clem’s mother told him when he complained that his father was never around. At five, learned what an automat was and that the last one closed in 1991.
Grew caustic and self-punishing, feeling he’d caused his father to desert him. Started picking quarrels with the family dog. Of all the kids on Halloween, demanded a treat and a trick. Then made noise about what he received: a Mars bar; a packet of “blood” that was just water plus food coloring.
Became a teenager with a savage little beard. Not unbright, even articulate, but griped about everything from the weather to werewolves (he was against them). Took up the guitar to moan in lyrics. relationships
Attached himself to a girl and caviled about her all through their first date, then moved in with her. When she finally dumped him, he whined to the cracked sidewalk outside his apartment, to the breeze from the open screen door.
Married a co-worker on the rebound, who stood him for fifteen years, two kids, and several anger issues before tossing him out. “How can anyone be so needy but complain so much?”
The sideways imprint of his head on the pillow alongside hers stayed for two months, as if in angry dialogue with her even when asleep.
First real job in the Complaints Department of the Consumer Protection Agency. Raised his voice when they re-titled it Customer Service. “Stop the fuss,” Clem’s boss told him. “You have nothing to complain about.”
Second and third, and last job: humdrum office work that he found grumble-worthy. family life
Became a father at age 30 and grumped constantly about his family. One son, subject of constant set-tos. After the divorce, stayed in touch via phone rants.
Son complained like his father but with a few improvements. Protested winningly, charmingly self-deprecatingly, humorously—except when he carped about his father. philosophy
Attended church until declared, “I don’t believe in this ‘turn the other cheek’ crap. Didn’t work for Christ, did it?”
Thought he might solve some problems by complaining less. Was an obvious lie.
Body started complaining. At 75, found he was losing joint mobility and memory at the same rate. Adopted a dog from the local shelter and bit her when she bit him. They got along.
Sat on the porch, curmurring about the sunny weather. Nice day for a stroke. Like a staticky radio station, he faded in and out and in and out.
Clem’s arguments were his life. Except the part where he died.
Took place on a day when everyone was complaining about the weather. No one came except the dog. The rain lashed down as if making a point.
David Galef has published over a dozen books, including the novels Flesh and How to Cope with Suburban Stress (one of Kirkus’s Best 30 Books of the Year) and the short story collections Laugh Track and My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books ’ Short Story Collection Award), and the poetry collections Flaws and Kanji Poems. His latest volume is Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook. He’s the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He is editor in chief at Vestal Review.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela